With a rare opening this fall in its congressional delegation, Vermont looks poised to lose its distinction as the only state never represented by a woman in Washington.
Three women, including Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, are among Democrats competing in the Aug. 9 primaries for the seat vacated by the only member of the U.S. House, Democrat Peter Welch, who is trying to move to the Senate. The two Republican candidates who ran for the midterm elections are also women.
Given Vermont’s liberal reputation, it may seem odd that it would be the last state to send a woman to Congress. But Vermont’s small population makes it one of a handful of states with the smallest congressional delegation possible — two senators and one member of the House. And like many states, Vermont has traditionally re-elected its incumbent officers, who happened to be white men who ended up serving extraordinarily long periods of time. So is Democrat Patrick Leahy, who was first elected in 1974 and is the fourth-longest-serving senator in history.
“It’s a leadership bottleneck,” said Elaine Haney, the executive director of Emerge Vermont, an organization dedicated to preparing women for running for election. “And so if someone holds all this for a very long time, it closes the opportunity for everyone.”′
last Nov,after eight terms. Within days, Welch said he would seek the Senate nomination, which would leave the big house seat vacant for the first time since 2006, when Welch now ran as senator. Bernie Sanders. Sanders has been a member of the Congressional delegation since 1991.
Haney, whose organization helped train some of the women running for the House to campaign, noted that women bring a different experience to elected office than men. That’s important, she said, on issues like abortion rights, a topic highlighted by athat indicated that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion would be reversed.
“I strongly believe – and I think a lot of other people strongly believe – that if women, Democratic women, actually sat at the table, these kinds of threatening situations wouldn’t happen, because women’s experiences would be central in the discussion and of policy,” she said.
Democratic candidates support abortion rights. A referendum on the Vermont vote in November would enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution, the first such amendment in the country. The state also has a law protecting a woman’s right to abortion.
“We need leaders to go to Washington and unequivocally ensure that…is codified at the federal level, and I know this is a top priority for the (Democratic) women in this race,” Gray said.
Welch is also a staunch supporter of abortion rights and has called on Congress to codify the right to abortion. He believes that choosing a woman as his successor will encourage more young people to run for office.
“This is a moment when all hands are on deck and I couldn’t be happier for our state that these women have risen to the challenge,” Welch said in a statement. “Each of the candidates is unique and incredibly talented, and I know they will use their experience to work hard for Vermonters in Congress if elected.”
Vermont remains an outlier at a time when the number of women serving in Washington is growing. Montana made Rep. Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress four years before the 19th Amendment secured women’s constitutional voting rights.
Since then, nearly 400 women have served as U.S. representatives, delegates, resident commissioners, or senators,
In 2018, Vermont became the last state without female representation in Congress when Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith was appointed to the Senate.
The women seeking the Democratic nomination in the Vermont House race have not focused their campaigns on the possibility that one of them will be the first woman from the state to be elected to Congress. Instead, they pledge to seek solutions to build the workforce, alleviate the state’s affordable housing problem and fight the climate crisis, among other priorities central to the party.
“They’re just not that far apart on a lot of these issues, and I think the election will be about other things, like questions of temperament and experience and, frankly, brand awareness,” said Matthew Dickinson, a political politician. professor of science at Middlebury College.
Gray, the lieutenant governor, was elected in 2020 in her first run for political office. She is a lawyer and former Assistant Attorney General.
Balint served in the state Senate for eight years, six of which were in leadership positions, the last two as president pro tempore. She used to be a high school teacher.
A third Democratic candidate, Sianay Chase Clifford, is an Essex social worker who previously worked in Washington for Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Democrat.
The candidates could also make history in other ways. If elected, Balint would be the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress, while Chase Clifford would be the first person of color to represent the state in Washington.
The GOP candidates running for the House seat are accountant Ericka Redic, who lost a race in the state Senate in 2020, and Anya Tynio, who ran for the U.S. House in 2018 and lost.
Redic says she will focus on fighting inflation, illegal immigration, drug abuse and government overreach, especially when it comes to vaccine mandates. Tynio said on her website that she is a supporter of the Second Amendment, a supporter of strong border security, and is in favor of implementing legislation that would reduce inflation, reduce national debt and balance the budget.
Two men, an independent from Brattleboro and a doctor from South Burlington running for Democrat, are also running for the House seat, but neither has reported raising money.
While this fall’s election is likely to break Vermont’s glass ceiling, the state is likely to have other openings in the coming years.
Sanders, an independent, is 80 years old and faces reelection in 2024. Welch is 75.
Haney said she would like all top positions in Vermont to be held by women.
“We’ve normalized male leadership throughout our history. And we’re so used to seeing only men in charge, and we think, ‘Oh, that’s fine,'” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with all women being in charge, and that’s what I want to see.”